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Online education evolves as advances in technology make major impact

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By Steven Overly
Monday, September 27, 2010

More than 70,000 school-age children wake up each morning for class and walk as far as the nearest Web-enabled gadget. If that's an iPad or laptop, they may not even need to leave their bed.

The students, enrolled in online schools through K12, a Herndon-based company, can still get help from a teacher if they're stuck, watch instructional demos or participate in class discussion -- it's just all digital.

Founder and chief executive Ron Packard contends that his company does not provide the online education that traditionalists tend to scoff at: isolated students staring at a computer screen, submitting homework to and earning credit from a faceless educator.

Rather, Packard claims the evolution of Web technologies such as streaming video, social networking and interactive gaming have made for a more collaborative and classroom-like experience online.

He's not alone in that thinking. All across the education spectrum, from traditional schools to online upstarts, people are experimenting with social technologies made popular by consumers.

Some experts have questioned whether the technology is mature enough to be effective, but that hasn't stopped businesses from pursuing opportunities.

As executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association, Julia Spicer tracks investments in the area and said emerging education technologies are drawing a lot of interest. The region is uniquely geared toward education companies, she said, because of its proximity to the federal education establishment and the early success of companies such as District-based education software maker Blackboard and Baltimore's Sylvan Learning. "There's lots of experience around the investment side because there has been a history of understanding the fundamentals of education," she said. "They're going to rely on new technologies ... so having the combined expertise of technology and education becomes very advantageous."

Blackboard has been an early adopter. The company initially tried adding "lightweight" offerings to its online course management system, allowing for discussion threads and document sharing, among other features, said Michael Stanton, the treasurer and senior vice president of finance.

Then the company spent $116 million in July to acquire Wimba and Ellmuniate, two companies that apply synchronous learning technologies such as online audio, video and digital whiteboards to distance-learning classes.

With those companies freshly tucked in its portfolio, Blackboard has begun to explore ways to build upon, and monetize, technology that makes interactions via the Web more human, Stanton said.

'DEATH OF DISTANCE'

Bill Rust, research director for the education sector at Gartner, a market research firm, said analysts there call the rise of the new technologies the "death of distance."


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